Saving Silver Springs; waterway focus of efforts


Published: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 5:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 5:52 p.m.

As state environmental regulators mull adding the Silver Springs attraction to Florida’s award-winning park system, water managers are now launching a new springs protection plan.

On Thursday, the St. Johns River Water Management District announced an initiative to reduce nitrate loading in springs within its jurisdiction, with the famous Marion County waterway squarely at the program’s bulls-eye.

The announcement culminated a series of presentations about Silver Springs that district staff has offered its governing board since September.

Water managers hope to bring an array of federal, state and local agencies together in the effort to restore Silver Springs.

The most recent of the four reports by St. Johns officials was made Tuesday, the day before several hundred people gathered at Vanguard High School to discuss the future of Silver Springs with officials from the Department of Environmental Protection.

A few speakers referenced St. Johns’ findings in urging DEP to incorporate the springs and the surrounding theme park into Silver River State Park.

Based on their presentations, water managers appeared to have developed a theory about why Florda’s largest freshwater spring is suffering — and is increasingly at risk.

Over the past 80 years, the discharge at Silver Springs has averaged about 700 cubic feet per second. But that has fallen in recent years.

Measurements taken this past summer revealed the output was about 500 cubic feet per second, a decline of about 29 percent over the historic average.

The dropoff occurred because a severe drought in 2000 and 2001 created a deficit in the water “budget” that the springs has yet to recover from.

As St. Johns officials note in their report, rainfall is “closely tied” to the springs output.

The problem has been compounded, however, by the “backwater effect.”

Excessive nitrates can spawn dense vegetation growth, especially algae, that can suck the oxygen out of the water, thus harming plants and fish and reducing the water quality. In September 2009, a study found that nitrate levels at Silver Springs had increased roughly 1,000 percent between the mid-1950s and 2004.

Nitrates occur naturally, but they are also fed into the springs from fertilizer usage, stormwater run-off and leaching from pastures and wastewater sites.

The nitrate-fueled growth in submerged vegetation in both the Silver and Ocklawaha rivers has slowed the flow of the Silver River, which was created by the discharge of the massive springs.

That, in turn, has raised the water level in the “pool” above the vents in Silver Springs, water managers have determined.

The increased water above ground has exerted pressure on the discharge, thus reducing the amount of groundwater jetting out.

St. Johns hydrologists in their October report noted that since 2002 the pool level has been well above the average of the previous 30 years, while the springs’ discharge has been well below.

While not dismissing its effects entirely, water managers pointed out that groundwater pumping around Silver Springs may not be the primary culprit for the springs’ woes.

Hydrologists reported in October that, beyond seasonal fluctuations, they have not witnessed a “strong downward trend” in groundwater levels between 1990 and 2012.

“The common thinking has been that reduced spring flows have been due primarily to excessive groundwater withdrawals,” Governing Board Chairman Lad Daniels said at the time.

“The recent discussions at the board meetings have shown that higher Silver River water levels and drought conditions have contributed to reductions in spring flows.”

The presentation on Tuesday by St. Johns managers indicated that groundwater pumping for all uses within the springshed had declined each year between 2006, when it hit a peak of nearly 50 million gallons a day, and 2010. And that 2010 total was among the lowest of the 15 years of data they offered.

Many environmentalists are unconvinced by Daniels’ position, however.

Thousands of people have signed a petition urging St. Johns’ governors to reject the pumping permit sought by billionaire Frank Stronach, who wants to withdraw 5 million gallons a day for his 25,000-acre cattle ranch in Fort McCoy.

At Wednesday’s meeting on Silver Springs hosted by the DEP’s parks staff, a call to reject that application drew robust applause.

Likewise, state parks officials heard a repetitive and resounding drumbeat to restore the health of Silver Springs.

“We need a long-term plan in order to restore Florida’s springs before we could ever hope to make it a source of revenue from ecotourism,” Kristie Armas, a junior at Vanguard High School, told the DEP panel.

“So many people here in Ocala and the surrounding region can come together and say, ‘Yes, our springs our troubled and we need to do something about it,’ ” she said of the “growing threat” of nitrates in the springs.

And it was with “a little bit of anger,” she added, that her generation fears the springs might not exist as their parents had known it, if action is not taken soon.

The task ahead for St. Johns and its partners is monumental — and will test the public commitment to the project.

According to the springs report presented Tuesday by St. Johns hydrologists, nitrates in Silver Springs must be reduced by 79 percent to meet the threshold set by environmental regulators.

While noting that ridding Silver Springs of those contaminants is vital to its long-term health, such an effort will be “costly,” St. Johns officials said.

Thus, water managers will hunt down the most “cost-effective” means of reaching the target, district officials said in a press release.

“Sound science is foundational to finding the most cost-effective solutions for springs protection,” said Hal Wilkening, director of St. Johns’ Water Resources Division.

“The District is ready to take our science and join with the state and local governments, as well as many other non-governmental groups to achieve our shared goal of springs protection.”

Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or at bill.thompson@starbanner.com

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